Can the Western Balkans Become Carbon Neutral by 2050?

TEXT: Sabin Selimi – 10. December 2020

In December last year, the European Commission launched its flagship policy: the European Green Deal. The aim is to make Europe carbon neutral by 2050 and see the economies in the European Union (EU) producing net-zero carbon emissions by that year. In addition, the policy aims at achieving zero pollution by the industry, thus protecting the health of its citizens. Following the enlargement policy, which should result in bringing the acceding countries in line with the EU principles and standards, the EU rightfully understood that this green deal needs to apply beyond its borders.

Climate change represents a crossroads for the Western Balkans. So, I asked two leading experts, one from Belgrade and the other from Skopje, whether the region can become carbon neutral by 2050.

  • Zvezdan Kalmar is among the leading experts on energy, transport and climate change in Serbia’s civil society, and part of a major coalition of NGOs advocating for green transition of the Serbian society.
  • Ana Colovic Lesoska is a Macedonian biologist who since 2011 has campaigned against the construction of dams for hydroelectric power production in North Macedonia. This led to the withdrawal of loans from the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), convincing the state authorities to suspend further work on dams in the national park. In recognition of her efforts, in April 2019 she was one of six environmentalists to be awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize.
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NO—Zvezdan Kalmar

No, because the Western Balkans are facing an enormous challenge in understanding the risks of climate change. The most probable scenario is that climate change will bring more intense precipitation, high temperatures and will impact the survival of plants and animals in the region.

Special problem will be the fact that most of technologies and methods of production and consumption are accommodated to decades-long structure that it is more than obvious that the region will need to restructure most of its energy, transport, communal, agricultural, communication, social and education systems. Additionally, the restructuring will need to be done also to the overall housing fleet to such depth and extent that practically we could say that the region will need to become a “Western Balkans 2.0” system.

This concept means that the Western Balkans will need to become resilient to harsh changes in climate patterns while at the same time to completely overhaul their energy production, consumption, transfer, storage systems. This way, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) could and should become achievable for all the citizens.

Such change will not be possible if the present economic system from top to bottom, from corporate centers of power to the “objectified” citizens providing endless accumulation of wealth in fewer hands remains intact. In the present economic system where the division between the poor and the rich is becoming more visible by each passing day, leading to social breakdown, failure of rule of law and protection of individual and collective freedoms and rights, environmental disaster, galloping climate change—all this is showing intrinsic failure of the economic system to provide just, equitable and inclusive development for all.

YES—Ana Colovic Lesoska

The Western Balkans were fairly quick to subscribe to the EU principles and standards, but continuously fail to implement them. I agree the challenges are there, but the Green Agenda for the Western Balkans offers much more opportunities to overcome these challenges. The European Commission has put forward its flagship policy, the New EU Green Deal, focused on EU members, but proposed a Green Agenda tailored specifically for the Western Balkans. The Instrument for Pre-Accession (IPA III) for the period 2021-2027 shall be the framework to implement the robust 9 billion euros Economic and Investment Plan for the region.

With only 18 million inhabitants, change in the region should not be as daunting a task as in larger economies, if carried out efficiently, with true political commitment and regional cooperation. The Western Balkans have the necessary resources not only for sustainable renewable energy and energy savings, but also to produce healthy food, while nurturing its exceptional biodiversity.

In its recent long-term climate strategy draft, the European Commission called for net-zero emissions by 2050, meaning a coal-free Europe. However, achieving climate neutrality and zero net emissions in the EU will not decrease climate impacts or health problems in the member states. Both climate change and pollution know no borders, so if neighbouring countries suffer the consequences of these impacts, so will the citizens of the EU.

If the Western Balkans are to follow the same trend, leading to the decrease of air pollution, improvement of human health and decrease of health costs, decarbonisation is the crucial step forward. Accelerated investment in climate action will enable the creation of future-proof jobs, provide economic incentives and build resilient businesses while driving innovation and a complete systemic transformation.

NO—Zvezdan Kalmar

If we look from a global perspective, the current economic system became a producer of added value on such scale that it could provide for all the needs of all humans on the planet. This could and should lead to the introduction of global basic income for everyone. Such basic income, however, is impossible in a situation of such global scale of tax dodging that is being measured in trillions of euros.

It is exactly this robbery on a global scale that is leading to strong feelings of manipulation related to green energy transition. Concentration of power in the hands of the few has led to a situation where most of citizens and most of countries have NO POWER over their lives. Green energy transition will lead to a higher concentration of power in the hands of the few via their ownership over critical technologies and infrastructure and knowledge necessary for transition.

Despite clear citizens’ concerns for their lives and their livelihood endangered by fossil fuels-related pollution and climate change, this feeling of continued and ever deepening loss of freedom and control over their needs is leading to resistance to yet another growing mechanism of concentration of power in the hands of the few.

YES—Ana Colovic Lesoska

All countries in the region must commit to an ambitious climate and energy target by 2030. Decarbonization should not only mean a coal phase-out, the process should be implemented in a sustainable way supported by an increased effort to boost energy efficiency, tackle energy poverty, optimize energy and transport systems, transform the industry and utilize sustainable forms of renewable energy sources. These actions will contribute to drastic improvement in air quality while stimulating job creation in the sustainable energy sector.

Like in the EU, circular economy must be used as a tool for delivering part of the 2050 decarbonization agenda, linking industry sectors producing sustainable products and design, supporting the sound use of secondary materials by facilitating a market for them, developing an efficient waste prevention and management system, and engaging communities and regions.

The energy and transport sector are interlinked with pollution. Thus, sustainable measures implemented in these sectors will positively influence air and water quality in the region. In households, energy efficiency measures must be applied with much higher rate than ever before. Energy communities and the decentralization of energy production, enabling the citizens to produce and consume the energy (prosumers) must be supported.

Legislation and standards protecting the environment will also preserve and ensure sustainable farming and rural development. In addition, financial stimulation aimed at small local farmers for agri-environmental measures that at the same time improve farming and protect the valuable habitats should be enabled.

NO—Zvezdan Kalmar

But the corporate owners of surplus of value, be it domestic or foreign corporations, and the so-called domestic “decision makers” in the Western Balkans are producing such institutional and legal framework that even if green transition happens, many citizens will be excluded from ownership leading to a situation of protracted and deepened divide and poverty.

Similar distribution should happen in agriculture, industry and housing. Without such deep change in structure of decision making and distribution of power in the hands of many, it will be impossible to stop galloping division, climate change, pollution, growing climate-related conflicts and migration of tens of millions of citizens globally.

Technology as such is not silver bullet and will not solve problem. Only in tandem with strong societal, legal and economic restructuring of combating climate change while eradicating poverty, providing universal access to clean, affordable energy will become reality, including reality of the Western Balkans.

YES—Ana Colovic Lesoska

As the region is considered a “biodiversity hotspot”, protecting the biological diversity should be paramount to sustainable development. Science has proven the linkages between the unsustainable use of natural resources and the appearance of various pandemics in recent times. The current COVID-19 crisis shows that our economies are unsustainable, and our resources are at stake. An increased effort in the protection of natural habitats and biological diversity could be the key to building a resilient society and economies.

With all this potential of the region and the right support mechanisms in place, the question is not whether the Western Balkans can become climate neutral, but rather when. Stronger commitment from the governments in the region is necessary because it can result in fast-paced positive transformations of the systems and lead to improved standards and livelihoods of the citizens.

Sabin Selimi works for Helvetas as Communication Manager in the RECONOMY Regional Programme.

This article appeared in the December 2020 issue of Helvetas MosaicSubscribe to never miss an issue.

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